It was long before Donald Trump became a U.S. presidential candidate, and even longer before he won the election. But when Trump stepped off a helicopter and walked into a building, Venezuelan businessman Angel Briceño thought he had hit the lottery.
“I felt I was set for life,” said Briceño, in an interview with el Nuevo Herald, adding that he was at the 2011 event in Newburgh, N.Y., to witness what he hoped would mark Trump's joining a project for a chain of restaurants that would rival the Hard Rock Cafe.
The success of the project — based on the image of Paul Teutul Sr., start of the program American Chopper on the Discovery Channel — seemed to be guaranteed. It was like shooting at the ground, said Briceño, who was at the time looking for ways to emigrate to the United States.
“How could a project backed by the Discovery Channel and with Paul Senior as the front man fail,” Briceño said. “And if Donald Trump was going to be part of it, the investors were going to rain down. I already saw myself turning up on the Forbes list of rich people. Everything coming to me was glorious.”
He was wrong. What he got was a crushing disappointment and ruin.
Briceño and more than a dozen other investors claim they lost the money they put into the different proposals for the restaurant business, designed by Venezuelan businessman Carlos Urbaneja around the image of Teutul and his custom motorcycle shop, Orange County Choppers (OCC).
The investors, most of them Venezuelans, alleged that they were hoodwinked into investing $12 to $15 million on a business project that never took off. Some of them said they complained to the FBI that they were victims of a Ponzi scheme and have filed lawsuits in Broward County against Urbaneja and Teutul.
They also allege that Urbaneja and Teutul sold the same project to three or four groups of investors, and at times issued shares in paper companies that had no value at all.
When the demands of the investors and the problems with the project became too much, the project was then relaunched under new names and share structures. The restaurant chain originally named OCC RoadHouse became OCC Cafe and later OCC Fast Food, the alleged victims told el Nuevo Herald.
Most of the investors did not know each other, although some who were facing the possible loss of their money started looking for other investors to compare experiences.
Urbaneja, who is also wanted for fraud by prosecutors in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, declined a request for an interview on the case but sent el Nuevo Herald a brief email.
“The lawsuit filed against me, my partners and my companies has no merit and we have filed motions with the court seeking to dismiss their case,” he wrote. “However, upon my attorney’s advice, since this case is in the midst of litigation he does not want me to make any public comment about the specifics of the case other than to tell you that we will vigorously defend the case and will be asserting significant counterclaims for the damages caused to us by the Plaintiffs.”
Teutul, who has offices in Newburgh, N.Y., also declined a request for an interview, saying that he had not received the details of the lawsuit.
El Nuevo Herald interviewed half a dozen investors who documented their complaints with copies of contracts, bank transactions, emails and other materials.
Luxury cars and exotic motorcycles
The investors who filed the lawsuit say that Urbaneja projected the image of a highly successful businessman and seemed to lead a life of luxury.
He usually picked up potential investors at the Miami airport in luxury cars, and sometimes even loaned them to the clients so they would not need to rent their own vehicles.
One of the investors, Eloy Jiménez, said Urbaneja was driving a luxury sports car when they met in the restaurant La Esquina del Lechon. Urbaneja did not like the restaurant.
“He came in a super Lamborghini, and everyone in the restaurant stood up. He told me that we could not meet there, in that low-class place, and we left for his home,” Jiménez recalled.
Briceño said he got the same treatment.
“The first time I came to the United States to look at the business, Carlos picked me up at the airport in a Lamborghini and took me to a house on Brickell Avenue that was supposedly worth $7 million,” he said. And there was more.
“He would go to a car dealer and they would lend you a Ferrari so you would not have to rent,” Briceño said. “And he would take you to eat at the Morton's on Brickell, where he had a liquor locker with his name on it.”
More than the cars and luxury that surrounded him, what impressed potential investors was the type of people in Urbaneja's business and social circles. By 2011, just two years after he arrived in the United States, Urbaneja was trying to do business with celebrities.
Some of the investors were taken to New York to meet with Teutul, whose reality show, American Chopper, was very popular in the United States and Latin America.
Another investor, Gabriel Argüello, recalled that he met Teutul, who initially seemed disinterested, in his motorcycle shop in Newburgh. But that changed as soon as Urbaneja explained that he was a potential investor.
“Paul changed when he said that, and we were, 'well you know, come here, this is your house.' And he loaned us an office. We spent five days there, in his headquarters,” Argüello added,
Paola Arciniegas, another investor, said the the image of Teutul was crucial for the restaurant scheme.
“We were going to get publicity from Paul Senior. He was going to promote the restaurant in his (TV) program. He was going to design a special motorcycle for the place, and he was going to visit it every once in a while, for the publicity,” Arciniegas said.
Dealing with ‘Donald’ and the $300,000 hamburger
The backers of the restaurant scheme wanted to make a big splash, so they tried to reinforce the project with the image of another celebrity, Donald Trump.
Briceño, who was already involved with Urbaneja in another project in Venezuela, recalled that he received a call from a very excited Urbaneja in 2011.
“I was in Venezuela, and Carlos calls me and tells me that Paul Senior was selected as contestant in Donald Trump's program, Celebrity Apprentice, and that the (Trump) program was super important in the United States,” Briceño said.
“They were going to do some kind of a fusion of the two programs, an American Chopper where Donald Trump was going to buy a custom bike for himself, and a Celebrity Apprentice where Paul Senior's challenge was linked to the sale of hamburgers,” he added.
Urbaneja and Teutul Senior wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to start to build the OCC brand and persuade Trump to join the project.
There was a lot of interest in recruiting the man who five years later would be elected president of the United States. Trump was not just known around the world, but he had buildings everywhere.
Briceño said he came to the United States in 2011 at Urbaneja's request and was at the American Chopper office in Newburgh when Trump arrived by helicopter to inspect the operation.
“He arrived, said hello, exchanged a couple of jokes and spoke about the color of the bike they were going to build,” he said. “Then we went to New York, to the Trump building, where the meeting took place.”
Briceño was not at the meeting, but he said that Urbaneja left it in high spirits. “He came out really thrilled. He said there were a lot of possibilities and that Donald Trump had said that the project was genius, that he thought it was phenomenal,” he said.
The group then moved to a New York City street where they were filming a Celebrity Apprentice segment with Teutul. Also there were celebrities Arsenio Hall, Lou “The Hulk” Ferrigno and magician Penn Jillete.
Teutul was selling hamburgers in a box with his face on it. He was competing against the other celebrities, and the sales were to be donated to Teutul's favorite charity, the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Teutul did well in the competition, thanks to Urbaneja.
“Carlos Urbaneja bought a hamburger for $300,000,” Briceño said. “That was how Paul Senior was starting to use the media to tell the world that he was partnering with a big-time restaurant guru, and that the guru had paid $300,000 for a hamburger.”
The maneuver had some media impact but wound up as a colossal waste of money.
Despite Trump's encouraging words, he never joined the project. And Urbaneja soon started to be pressed by his partners, who were growing impatient over the absence of any construction and worried by the ways in which their money was being used.
In the end, only one restaurant opened under the Orange County Chopper brand. It's in Teutul's headquarters in New York.
A second one opened in Miami, but it was developed by one of the investors, who used the ruins of the failed project to open the restaurant on his own and under a different name.
Follow Antonio Delgado and Johanna Álvarez on Twitter: @DelgadoAntonioM y @Jalvarez8.